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Does Apple Discriminate Against Iranian Americans?

Friday, June 22, 2012

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June 22, 2012 - Washington D.C. - Recent media reports citing an incident that took place at an Apple Store in Alpharetta, Georgia and the possibility of discrimination against an Iranian American has been the cause of significant concern within our community. A number of Iranian American and other organizations have issued statements calling on Apple to change its policy, which restricts sale to customers of Iranian descent who intend to take their products to Iran. In addition, Iranian Americans throughout the country have taken to FaceBook, chat rooms, and online blogs to protest against this perceived act of discrimination. 

As is our policy, PAAIA refrained from making any public statements until we investigated certain facts regarding the incident. Over the past two days, both independently and in collaboration with organizations such as the American Civil liberties Union and the Iranian American Bar Association, we have been working to verify the events that took place at the Apple store and other reported incidents. Though we believe that Apple did not engage in a deliberate act of discrimination, the application of the policy, the incident was interpreted as discriminatory by the customer and, thereupon, by the general public and media. Based on the information obtained, it seems that the Apple employee in Alpharetta, Georgia followed the company’s policy regarding selling products that may be sold or supplied to individuals in countries under the US embargo - namely Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. Furthermore, attorneys from the ACLU have also been in direct contact with the customer and have reached a similar conclusion - that Apple’s refusal to sell the product was not based on discrimination.

There have been differing versions of the conversation that occurred between an Apple store employee and Ms. Sabet. Last week, a 19 year old Iranian American US citizen, Sahar Sabet, attempted to purchase an I-Pad at the Apple Store in Alpharetta, Georgia. She was accompanied by her uncle, with whom she was speaking in Farsi. Ms. Sabet claims that the store refused to sell her an I-Pad after they heard her speak Farsi. It is unclear how the clerk learned about the final destination of the product being Iran; however, based on that piece of information, the store employee, citing the US embargo, refused to sell the product to Ms. Sabet.

US Sanctions law prohibits the taking or sending of any electronic equipment such as phones, computers, and telephones to countries under US embargo without prior permission from the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. As noted on Apple’s website, as a result of the embargoes held by the US on the aforementioned countries, the “exportation, re-exportation, sale or supply, directly or indirectly, from the United States, or by a U.S. person wherever located, of any Apple goods, software, technology (including technical data), or services to any of these countries is strictly prohibited without prior authorization by the U.S. Government. This prohibition also applies to any Apple owned subsidiary or any subsidiary employee worldwide.” Both Apple and its employees are required to comply with this law at all times.

“Apple’s export compliance policy is in line with U.S. Government regulations governing trade with Iran,” explains sanctions specialist Erich Ferrari of Ferrari & Associates, P.C. “While it is not exactly clear on whether or not there was a misinterpretation of Apple’s policy by the retail representative in Alpharetta, Georgia, the company may be well served in issuing a document to its employees clarifying what their policy means and the practical application of that policy.”

At the same time, the media has reported another incident in Georgia were it is less clear whether or not the customer planned on actually exporting the device to Iran or was denied the sale solely on the basis of ethnicity. PAAIA will not comment on that incident until all facts are known.

Companies are governed by a host of local, state, and federal mandates that regulate many of their activities. Most of these regulations are easily enforced by the company and understood by their employees. Their application is usually standard for all customers and there are limited opportunities for either intentional or unintentional discrimination. However, legislations such as the U.S. embargo and sanctions against Iran are not well understood and leave much to be desired in the consistent application of these laws.

Regardless, of whether one agrees or disagrees with the efficacy of U.S. trade regulations against Iran, companies such as Apple, have a responsibility to ensure that such policies, regardless of their complexity, are well understood and uniformly applied by their employees. There is no room for error, especially in cases where the rights of a customer may be encroached. Apple does invest significant time and human resources in providing job-specific and cultural training for its employees. The detailed directions that the company provides its store employees on how to address and work with current and potential customers is a clear reflection of the value that Apple places on customer satisfaction. There is, however, room for improvement.

Given the incidents that occurred in Georgia, Apple would be well served to ensure that its employees follow the applicable laws and regulations when it comes to export restrictions and do not deny U.S. citizens and others legally residing in the United States from purchasing Apple gear based on their ethnicity. We are confident that Apple will further educate its employees on the complexities of the US embargo and on how to ensure that they do not jeopardize customer rights in their quest for compliance.

It is also important that the Iranian American community understand the basis and scope of these regulations and how they impact their ability to purchase and send materials to family members in Iran. Because of the current state of affairs between the U.S. and Iran and evolving sanctions regimes, it behooves Iranian Americans to be familiar with and aware of changes in the law. We will, thus, be better prepared to stand up for our rights and educate others so that cases of possible discrimination or misinterpretation of laws are minimized.

To that end, we will supplement the OFAC seminars that have been offered by PAAIA throughout the US with information on how the sanctions apply in cases of products and goods sold within the US and potentially sent to Iran. PAAIA will, in conjunction with IABA and other organizations will be contacting Apple to begin a dialogue regarding the concerns of the Iranian American community. We will also work with Apple to identify ways through which the company may enhance its employee training to ensure that their quest to comply with US regulations does not inadvertently discriminate against Iranian Americans. We will also communicate our concerns to OFAC and assist in identifying options where customer rights are not adversely. Finally, as part of our ongoing meetings on Capitol Hill, we will educate lawmakers and congressional staff on how these sanctions can be misinterpreted and used in a discriminatory manner and identify possible ways where such incidents can be mitigated.